ASIA BIBI, the Pakistani Christian woman who was imprisoned on death row for most of a decade, accused of blasphemy, has said that she has “forgiven everyone from my heart”, and is not angry at her accusers.
In her first broadcast interview since her release, Ms Bibi told Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday that she was proud of her country for freeing her, and that she hoped, one day, that it might be possible to return.
Ms Bibi was acquitted in November 2018, more than eight years after she was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with her neighbours at a well (News, 19 November 2010). The original sentence was overturned by a three-judge panel, sparking protests in Pakistan by Islamic extremists (News, 31 October 2018).
She left Pakistan and arrived in Canada in May, four months after her acquittal was upheld by the Supreme Court of Pakistan (News, 10 May 2019).
“Demonstrations started in my country, but it was my country that freed me,” she said. “That makes me proud, that I was freed by my country. . . Things get better, things change, and I can imagine that one day God will take me back and give me a chance to see my country again.”
Ms Bibi, who is Roman Catholic and has five children, was in France promoting her book, Finally Freed!, which she co-wrote with the French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet, who had campaigned for her release. In it, she recalls having her neck put in a brace that was tightened by a key and pulled on a chain by guards. The Pakistani government has dismissed the claim as implausible.
PAAsia Bibi meets the French President, Emmanuel Macron, at the Élysée Palace in Paris, last Friday
Speaking of her ordeal for the first time, she said: “It was very hard. I suffered. A lot of people tried to mislead me. They said: ‘Change your faith and you will be free.’ But I said no. I will live my sentence with my faith.”
She urged the government of Pakistan, and its Prime Minister, Imran Khan, who has defended the country’s blasphemy laws, to review the justice system in the country. “Innocence should not be punished for no reason, and people who are innocent in prison should be freed,” she said. “During an investigation, both parties should be questioned properly.”
Ms Bibi had not been questioned or allowed to speak during her trial, she said. “I was very scared. I could not even imagine thinking that something like this could happen to me. I kept going to the court and not once did the judge hear my side of the story. I kept hoping that I would be allowed to speak — I even asked; but they sentenced me to death.”
Despite her experience, and the effect that it has had on her family, she said: “I am not angry at all. I have forgiven everyone from my heart. And there is no hardness in me. There is patience in me because I learnt how to be patient when I had to leave my children behind.”
Ms Bibi later told the anti-persecution charity Open Doors that God had told her that she would be tested. “When I was born, the priest told my mother: ‘This girl is going to be tested by God.’ And my parents kept telling me this story; so I knew that this was going to happen some day.”
She had never doubted God. “My faith has always been strong because my family had a lot of devotion, but it did get stronger, because now I know that God is with me — and God won’t leave you alone: he is always with us.”
The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, told the Today programme that the UK Government should take a “proactive stance” on the abuse of blasphemy law. “Often, these laws are used at a local level in a thoroughly vindictive matter to settle local scores and local disputes — Asia Bibi’s case is a prime example of that — but, sadly, it is by no means the only one.
“The Government should be bringing significant pressure to bear both locally in the country and in bilateral conversations at a government level.”
It should also abandon its mantra of responding to “need, not creed”, with UK aid. “Internationally, we choose to take a religion-blind approach, and, to be honest, that is a religiously illiterate approach, because to say that we focus on need, not creed, ignores the fact that creed can make people significantly more vulnerable when they are in a minority situation.”